I’m living a frugal lifestyle and cook most meals at home. It does not mean that I hate dining out. Sometimes I do want to take a break and enjoy delicious food at a restaurant, especially dishes that I could not readily make myself at home. Eating out generally costs more, but there are many ways to save money at restaurants.
Here are my favorite ways to dine out on a budget:
1. Use Restaurant Coupons/Certificates from Local Deal Apps
Local deal apps such as Groupon and LivingSocial often have deals on local restaurants. Browse their apps and websites for restaurant deals in your local area. As these apps are getting increasingly popular, there are more participating restaurants offering 40-50% discount). Sometimes Groupon and LivingSocial offer coupons for extra savings. Sign up for all these local deal apps so you can have more dining choices.
You may also purchase discount restaurant certificate from restaurant.com for just a few bucks and save big when dining out. For example, right now, they are offer promotions where you can buy a restaurant $25 gift certificate for only $3.5. There are certain restrictions such as minimum purchase, dine-in only. Be sure to read the fine print when purchasing a discount gift certificate.
2. Join Restaurant Reward Programs and Sign up for Newsletters
Some restaurants offer free Royalty Programs or Reward Programs. When you join their program and sign up for their newsletter you get special offers directly to your email. You may also get free food or drink for your birthday.
Some of my favorite reward programs are Longhorn Reward Program, TGI Friday Reward Program, and Cici’s Pizza Loyalty Program. They offer freebies for special occasions or free meals when you get enough points.
3. Purchasing Discount Restaurant Gift Cards
Check websites such as Cardpool or Raise and purchase discount gift cards from your favorite restaurants. The other week, we purchased Olive Garden gift card from Cardpool, which allowed us to save 17%.
Besides, there are many ways to earn free gift cards. If your favorite restaurants offer gift cards as a reward for those program, why not request those gift cards?
4. Maximize Cash Back from Dining out
Many airline and hotel loyalty programs offer dining programs. Members can simply register their credit cards and start to earn free miles of points when paying for charges at participating restaurants with the linked credit cards.
In addition, some travel reward credit cards provide bonus points for dining at restaurants. For instance, you can link your Rapid Reward Plus Cards to the Southwest Rapid Reward Dining Program and/or link your Chase Sapphire Preferred Card to United Mileage Dining Program (my personal favorite).
You can also join dining cash back programs such as Mogl or Yelp Cash back. You just need to link your credit cards, check a restaurant offer from their apps, and pay with the linked card to earn cash back. As far as I know, you may only link each card to one dining cash back program.
5. Dine-out at Kids-Eat-Free Days
If you have kids, you may want to look for restaurants that have a “kids eat free” menu. For example, at Cici’s Pizza, kids 3 and under can eat free.
Some restaurants have specific “kids eat free” days. Here are some my favorite ones:
Denny’s: Tuesday from 4-10pm (kids eat free)
IHOP: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday from 4-8 pm (kids 8 and under eat free; may not be valid for all locations)
Steak n’ Shake: Saturday and Sunder (Kids 12 and under, one free kids plate for every $9 spent).
Ruby’s Diner: Tuesday 4 pm (Kids 12 and under eat free).
6. Do Research before Heading to the Restaurant
I am not great at ordering meals on the spot unless it is a restaurant that I am already very familiar with. If you are like me, you might want more time to go through the menu and read item ingredients, prices, and sizes. Check out the online menu and customer review (if available), so you can have a better idea about what you want to order and what you should avoid.
7. Order Large size and Share it or Save Leftover
Many restaurants offer large portion meals. You can order one meal and request an extra plate to share it.
If you are dining alone, consider ordering oversized portions of meals that are easy to reheat and good as leftovers the next day. One of my favorite dishes is seafood pan-fried noodle, which is often served in large portions, enough for my dinner and next day lunch.
8. Skip Fancy Drinks and Dessert
Drinks and beverages are usually items with the highest profit margin on the menu. A few drinks can easily add $10 or more to your bills.
Ask for free water instead. Many Chinese restaurants offer tea for free as well, but double-check with the waiter whether it is free or you need to pay for it.
Dessert at the restaurant is overpriced. Besides, dessert can be the downfall of any diet because of its high calories and high sugar. Skipping dessert can help save money and control weight.
I am probably one of the few with no craving for sweet desserts such as cake, mousse, and ice-cream. (That probably explains why I am so skinny.) But if you have a sweet tooth, wait to enjoy your ice-cream from freezer afterward at home. It is much cheaper.
Have you used any of listed ways to save money at restaurants? What are your favorite hacks to cut spending when dining out? I’d love to hear it.